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Nazi literature on table

The rise of the Nazis

How was it possible for as violent a movement as the Nazis to come to power? Was it really as straightforward as many want us to believe? Hannah Baldwin meets Professor Chris Szejnmann, who, in his latest book, dispels some enduring myths and contests the rise of Nazism.

Ask almost anyone about the Nazis and they’ll more than likely have a view. Countless books and numerous documentaries mean we’re all familiar with their impact on history. Fewer of us though can comprehend their journey, how they were able to become one of the most influential, and destructive, powers of the 20th Century.

Helping to shed new light on the issue is Chris Szejnmann, Professor of Modern History in Loughborough’s Department of Politics, History and International Relations. He is currently putting the finishing touches to his latest book, Contesting the Rise of the Nazis, that aims to re-examine, in light of the latest research, the progress of Nazism throughout Germany, and to debunk some popularly held myths.

Professor Chris Szejnmann“In this book I want to move away from the overly simplistic, linear manner in which history is often presented – that A happens, which leads to B, and as a result you have C,” Chris says.

“I don’t think history is like that. There are ruptures, changes and various potential conclusions right up until the end. I’ve tried to convey the complexities of the Nazis’ rise to power. Personally I don’t believe Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor was inevitable. There could have been different outcomes.”

Chris has also tried to explore Nazism’s place in German social and cultural history. “Traditionally books have tended to concentrate largely on the political history. I’ve tried to show that the rise of Nazism was deeply embedded within German society, rather than being just a political movement that was somehow detached.”

At the start of his research career Chris centred his work on the impact of Nazism in the German region of Saxony, before moving on to look at the Third Reich, the Holocaust and post-War Germany. The book has given him the chance to revisit the rise of Nazism, this time from a national perspective.

Chris has noticed a shift in other researchers’ focus since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German re-unification. “There has been a real concentration of work on the Nazi dictatorship, in particular the barbaric war in the East and the Holocaust. I think since 1989 German society has been attempting to come to terms with its past and has, for the first time, openly discussed very difficult issues, including the active involvement of large numbers of people in the persecution and murder of Jews and other minority groups.

“I felt the period of the Weimar Republic and the history of the Nazi movement until Hitler’s rise to power had been slightly neglected in recent studies though, so it was timely for me to look at that period.”

Chris begins the book by examining the 13 months before Hitler became Chancellor, a period of history generally given just scant reference in other historical texts. In this he re-examines some widespread myths.

There’s a perception that the Nazis had an almost unstoppable rise and that, apart from a blip in the November ’32 election, when their vote slipped for the first time ever, Hitler’s assumption to power was inevitable. But the background is more complex than that.

“There was a lack of cohesion within the Nazi party, with three factions pulling in different directions – the violent Stormtroopers who wanted to seize power by force, political hardliners such as Hitler and Goebbels, and those willing to collaborate with existing elites, like Gregor Strasser, the head of party organisation. Each wanted to adopt opposing strategies to bring the party to power. The depression was coming to an end, party funds were running out and the enthusiasm and belief that had existed at the beginning of the Nazi movement was slipping away. Essentially the party was sliding further and further into crisis.”

Myths and different views also abound about their leader. Although often described as hesitant, an opportunist with no real strategy and, in the end, just lucky, some historians believe Hitler was decisive and even ahead of his time.

Chris thinks he was not only more extreme but also more driven than anyone else.

He stood out as a speaker and had qualities that others lacked. He had a world-view that was coherent at the time, even though it was based on extreme racism and a social Darwinism that envisaged German rule over others who were thought to be sub-humans. Some people have said that Hitler was a revolutionary, that he modernised Germany to some extent, but modernisation is a term often associated with progression and improvement, and hence there is uneasiness amongst many to equate Nazism with this.

Chris was keen however to examine the Nazis beyond their infamous leader. “There’s too much focus on Hitler. The public are often fascinated by him for the wrong reasons: because he embodies evil. But many others formulated Nazi policies and ideas too, particularly before 1933, and it’s only with hindsight that we’ve identified Nazism so strongly with Hitler. You can’t ignore him of course, but I wanted to explore the breadth of the movement.”

One of Chris’s key questions was what attracted people to Nazism. Deeply rooted in our perception of the Nazis’ success is the party’s use of powerful propaganda, through which, we’re led to believe, they were able to manipulate huge numbers of Germans. But Chris questions whether this is merely a convenient excuse to rationalise why people followed such a movement or acted in horrific ways.

“Before 1933, Nazi propaganda wasn’t as widespread and powerful as often believed. While it had an impact in nationalist circles, we now know it had little effect on those who weren’t predisposed to it. It’s impossible to measure the true extent of the impact though, as there’s no data on this from that period.”

Until recently there was also a theory that the Nazis attracted middle-class voters who lacked the ‘sense of belonging’ other classes had. But it’s now known that the party attracted people from all walks of life.

“They didn’t attract these people purely because of their propaganda, or because of their anti-Semitism,” explains Chris. “Most importantly, they succeeded because they promised to draw the nation together to overcome the internal and external problems Germany was facing at the time.”

The outcome of the First World War had been a pivotal point for the country. It was widely believed among the nationalists in particular that the Versailles Peace Treaty had been unjust and that Germany hadn’t lost an honourable war but had instead been stabbed in the back. There was a strong desire to redress this by fighting another war with a different outcome.

But if Germany’s deep-rooted problems were to be resolved, the nationalists realised the country’s deep internal divisions – in class, regions and religious faiths – would have to be overcome. A sense of national unity only existed during the ‘August experience’ in 1914, when the nation pulled together to fight a war in defence of the nation. This mood disintegrated quickly in the face of a long-lasting war which sharpened the old divisions again.

“After the war, the Nazis preached the idea of national union the loudest,” says Chris. “When the stock market crashed in New York in 1929 triggering a world-wide depression, Germany was hit particularly hard and the Nazis seemed to have the answers. It made sense to people to pull together as one nation.

“Of course there were still large numbers of people who resisted. Hitler wasn’t voted into power in 1933, it happened through negotiation with powerful elites. You could therefore argue, given the election results prior to his appointment, that nearly two thirds of people did not want him as Chancellor when he was appointed.”

After Hitler came to power the tide turned very quickly, however. “He really seemed to deliver,” says Chris. “Germany had enormous success in its foreign policy and, after a few bumpy years, the economy and employment situations improved dramatically due to re-armament.

“But perhaps most importantly of all, the thing that held Nazism together after 1933 is this feeling that the Nazis were creating a new national unity which was, of course, also based on the brutal exclusion and persecution of Jews and other minority groups. This, coupled with the myth of their charismatic leader – a fable that still perpetuates today.”.

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Editor: Judy Wing T: +44 (0)1509 228697 E: j.l.wing@lboro.ac.uk

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